Community/The Coronavirus Pandemic and the Debate Around Work and Play

A young scholar looks at his own life before and during the pandemic in this engaging commentary

“I have the urge to just keep running as hard and as fast as I can, without stopping, whenever I’m on the field now. Blades of grass, other players, even the football, all seem irrelevant when I’m in that phase. Even if my legs sear from the pain and my lungs struggle to grasp for air, I’m so used to not stopping now that I can’t stop anymore”. That’s how I explained my addiction to working non stop to a close friend at my university earlier this year, in February 2020. My fourth semester had started off to a hectic start, of juggling between hundreds of pages of readings every week, to football training and gym sessions, to long nights of peaceful protest at Shaheen Bagh, I had entered a mechanical cycle of work, and to be very honest, I was enjoying it to a large extent; I’d hate every second that I wasted not being productive. Of course, I had no idea that a certain virus was about to dismantle my mechanisms slowly and painfully without even infecting me. 

When my semester on campus was halted because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we were all requested to go back home and continue our classes online, I didn’t realize what this was going to do to me. I was still concerned with the task at hand, of finishing this semester by reading and writing and submitting research essays. I survived two months of online classes with a decent amount of complaining about online format but nothing huge. Once one is so involved in this copious cycle of productivity, life still seems to keep moving. It was only in May, after my last assignments were submitted, that the horror of being idle really hit me. Without thinking twice I went to volunteer with an NGO in my area, and helped provide food and water to migrant workers who had to board Shramik train from Bangalore. From the first day of work till the last, I was willing to spend extra hours on site, but even this job was over by the first week of June. Now the terrible reality had really set in. After six hectic months of 2020, for the first time, I had no reason to feel like working non-stop. But I still did feel like it.

Apparently, my summer holidays had begun. Even though it was clear by April that Summer 2020 was going to be spent at home, I still hadn’t planned anything for it; after all, it’s a summer ‘break’, why should I? 

If the month of June is to be the standard to follow, my summer is about to be a monotonous and mechanical system of waking up, stretching, reading books, playing video games, working out and then going back to sleep, with meals in between. Of course, this is also more or less what I did in college as well, but there is a difference: I’m doing this all alone now, which is perhaps the biggest monster in my head: loneliness. Despite living in a house with three other adults (my parents and grandmother), not having someone to speak to you on the same wavelength is perhaps what haunts my days. Sounds crazy for sure, but I definitely miss having someone swear at me on top of their voice in the hostel, and I miss being able to talk to real human beings when I want and be quiet in a corner of the campus when I want. The challenge now is, who do I talk to, and what do I talk about? 

My football definitely talks and makes me talk. I’ve spent countless hours in the past four months with her, and she’s perhaps the one football I’ve been with for so long. Though I suspect even she’s getting bored of being just with me, and the wall against which I kick her is tired of being the third party in our relationship. Can books and journals be considered my companions? I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t had meaningful conversations with Kancha Ilaiah and Chantal Mouffe over the past few weeks. They’re great conversationists for sure, but perhaps only through the medium of paper. Musicians have spoken to at great length over the past four months, in all languages and in all genres. Even though they’re just in my headphones, rappers and rockstars have made sure that I never felt too lonely. It is also true that you understand some artists’ music only when you’ve taken a step back from large crowds and are really listening to it on your own.  

The next 5 months left in this year will probably see me sitting right where I am right now (on a couch) doing my online classes and writing assignments. The books, the music and the football are all that are gonna be really here with me, at a physical and at a spiritual level. What my ‘workaholism’ has really taught me now is how to value these things in the absence of something more desirable, like my campus life. Social media is probably going to just remind me of what life was like 6 months ago, so that’s going to be avoided as much as possible. This entire period of lockdown, in a way, has been about me confronting the idea of resting and taking it easy. The possibility of burning out all my energy and dedication seems very real now, especially when faced with another online semester. So, for now, the question I am confronted with everyday is, to rest or not to rest?

Kabir Madan is an undergraduate student at the Shiv Nadar University, Uttar Pradesh.

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